Words That Fill the Gaps in Thought: Plugs or Slugs


Having struck out in attempting to skate over the thin ice of numbers of magnitude (for example, the chances of being killed by terrorists), I will now return to the relatively familiar sport of word usage.

Speaking of which, I call your attention to that lovely mixed metaphor in my first paragraph. How many other writers would dare to mix baseball with ice skating?

It is perhaps a question of little consequence, but about four years ago a reader named John Lowe wrote to ask if I knew the name of those meaningless words or phrases that people drop into their speech. He referred specifically to such useless baggage as “you know,” or more often, “y’know,” as in, “This guy, y’know, is, uh, y’know, a cool cat.”


Lowe sends me a letter I wrote in answer to his question:

“I don’t know what to call them but interjections. Yours truly.”

Obviously, y’know, that was not a very satisfactory answer. Lowe kept wondering. Finally, in June, he noticed that Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary welcomed such inquiries.

He wrote them: “I believe there is a word that describes the senseless interjections with which some people lard their speech, or even their writing. Examples are ‘you know,’ ‘OK’ and ‘basically.’

“Please, what is this word? And if there isn’t such a word, then there ought to be. Maybe you should invent it.”

He received this answer, which I do not consider satisfactory: “The word you are looking for is filler or hesitation form . Neither is in the Ninth New Collegiate but hesitation form is entered in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. There is a brief discussion of fillers, as well as one of you know , in Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.”

I don’t think either filler or hesitation form will do. Filler does not indicate the true function of y’know and hesitation form is awkward and weak.

Notice that in his letter to Webster’s Lowe used my word, interjection , but Webster’s ignored it.

I suggest the word plug , since the function of y’know is to plug holes in one’s thought processes. It is merely a steppingstone to get a dim mind from one thought to another.

Meanwhile, Alfred L. Ginepra Jr. of Santa Monica accuses me of misusing the Latin abbreviations i.e. and e.g., pointing out that the first stands for id est, meaning “that is (to say)” and the second stands for exempli gratia, meaning “for example.”

Ginepra does not back his accusation with any examples. Since childhood I have known the difference between i.e. and e.g. and have never used one for the other. In some instances the distinction is slight, and either might be used; e.g., “Men are sometimes beastly, (i.e., e.g.) they kill one another.”

Going back to interjections, or filler, or plugs, I have noticed one that has gained ever increasing favor in the columns of this newspaper and other noteworthy publications, including Newsweek and the New York Times.

This is the insertion of the word well where it is not necessary and has no grammatical function. I believe I first came across it in a sports column, sports being a section in which it flourishes.

I have collected numerous examples, but I don’t wish to single out their authors by citing any. I will make up a few that seem typical.

“The prima donna sang loud, but she was, well, flat. . . . “

As that one suggests, the intrusive well is popular with culture critics. It appears frequently in theatrical or movie reviews, e.g., “the acting is adequate but the plot is, well, sick.”

In sports we may read that a certain athlete “may be popular but he’s, well, old.”

Like so many other linguistic devices popular with journalists, it has spread like wildflowers (to blow a simile). Evidently some writer used it first, probably a sports writer, when he wasn’t sure what word he wanted, and finally came up with one that seemed, well, right, though perhaps a bit too frank or mischievous.

It always precedes a word that seems to be exactly what is needed but for which the writer is inclined to apologize, while at the same time applauding himself for his honesty and daring. “One is reluctant to observe that the star is, well, fat.”

There is really nothing wrong with this device. The person who first used it must have been very pleased with himself.

There may be some relief in sight. The other day I noticed a variation, like this: “Finally this book is just, uh, stupid.”

To me the presence of that self-conscious and useless interjection is, well, obnoxious.